U of Washington walks out for diversity

March 2, 2015

Darrin Hoop reports from Seattle on walkouts at University of Washington campuses and the determined call of students, faculty and workers for greater diversity on campus.

STUDENT ACTIVISTS led walkouts at several University of Washington (UW) campuses on February 25, mobilizing staff, faculty and community supporters as well as students to address the issue of diversity.

Members of Outside Agitators 206 (OA206), a leading Black Lives Matter group in Seattle, as well as students from various departments and student organizations, helped organize the day of protests, marches and speak-outs at UW campuses in Seattle, Bothell and Tacoma.

UW senior Sarra Tekola told the more than 1,000 people gathered outside UW-Seattle's student union building, the HUB:

Dr. King once said, "Our freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth." Black Lives Matter because until Blacks are free from a racist, classist system, we all suffer. Wherever the conditions are the worst, that is where you find us. That is why when you improve Black lives, you improve society.

Protesters marched and held speak-outs in seven different locations on Seattle's campus, and for a brief period, they took to the streets. At 45th Street and The Ave, the busiest intersection in the University District, everyone gathered in a giant circle in the middle of the street and held a moment of silence for four and a half minutes to symbolize the four and a half hours that Black teenager Mike Brown's body lay dead on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, last August.

A walkout at the University of Washington led by Outside Agitators 206
A walkout at the University of Washington led by Outside Agitators 206

The core message of the OA206 is best summarized in its statement, "We are abolitionists in the year 2015. We want an end to police terror, we want an end to slavery that is the prison system, and we want the people who profit from this held accountable."

SINCE THE death of Mike Brown, the Black Lives Matter movement in Seattle has held protests primarily, though not exclusively, downtown or in the Central District, which, though rapidly gentrifying, is still the heart of the African American community. However, the February 25 walkouts planted the movement in the heart of the UW campuses as well.

If the demands presented on the Seattle campus were met, they would radically alter the racial composition and treatment for African Americans and other minorities at the UW, along with its unionized staff.

Patricia Allen, a First Nations leader at the UW, delivered the first walkout speech by, among other points, reminding everyone that the university was built on colonized Duwamish land.

Next, Jaebadiah Gardner described the history and significance behind the starting point of the walkout--the "Blocked Out" sculpture in front of Mary Gates Hall. The sculpture features footprints in black granite that symbolize a slave auction block.

Constructed in 2005, this monument to the struggle against oppression was itself the result of students organizing. Two students, Sumona Das Gupta and Gardner, organized a campaign against the UW erecting a statue of the racist former Huskies football team coach Jim Owens in front of the football stadium. While they were unable to prevent the statue of Owens from going up, they and others forced the university's Office of Development and Alumni Relations to donate $50,000 for the "Blocked Out" piece.

From there, students marched to the HUB, where Sarra Tekola, a project intern with the Washington Leaders for Conversations about Climate and an activist with Divest UW, a student group demanding the UW divest from fossil fuels, powerfully argued:

Black people have been subjugated to the worst conditions, redlined to the poorest of neighborhoods with the worst pollution, most destitute schools, the most hazards and the least amount of transit. We have the highest rates of asthma, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

If we are lucky enough to escape death from poverty diseases, we still have to face being 22 times more likely to be shot by the police. And even if we escape these challenges, one in three Black men is in jail. And Black woman are the most likely to receive subprime mortgage loans, leading to them having the highest rate of foreclosures on their homes.

After the HUB stop, students marched to the Quad in the center of campus, where representatives from Scholars Against Systemic Racism, a coalition of graduate students and faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences, presented their demands to the administration of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Next, a similar process unfolded at the Evans School of Public Affairs, the Law School and the School of Social Work, and after a brief march off campus, the day ended outside Gerberding Hall, where the UW administrative offices are located. At each stop, students read their own list of demands for their respective school and talked about how they've experienced discrimination at the UW.

THE IMPORTANCE of connecting the Black Lives Matter movement with other issues of oppression resonated throughout the three-and-half-hour walkout. Students discussed the importance of women's rights and fighting sexism. A majority of those who spoke throughout the day were women of color.

Many others raised LGBTQ rights, and specifically transgender rights, as issues this and other movements should support. In addition, three undocumented students courageously stood on the steps of the Social Work building and talked about their experiences dealing with discrimination that they've suffered due to the racist immigration system in the U.S.

Another notable statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement came from 12 members of the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW) Joint Commissions Committee. The signees included Director of Diversity Efforts Varsha Govindaraju, along with the American Indian, Asian, Black, Queer, La Raza, Pacific Islander, Student Disability and Women's Action Student Commission directors and three representatives from the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Activists program.

In a display of student-worker solidarity, members of Washington Federation of State Employees Local 1488--the third-largest union on campus, representing over 2,000 custodial, food service, grounds maintenance and other types of workers--presented their own list of demands.

These included increasing the number of custodians on the job to at least 250 daily, filling skilled trade vacancies in facilities maintenance and construction, a $15 minimum wage, and stopping the harassment and discrimination against custodians, primarily immigrant workers, women and union activists.

If one central theme dominated the day's actions in addition to opposition to police terror and murders in the Black community, it was the reinstatement of affirmative action in Washington state.

In 1998, Washington voters passed Initiative 200, which ended affirmative action in the state. The following statistics from the UW's Office of Minority Affairs, as of January 9, highlight the devastating results of ending affirmative action for diversity at the university:

-- Only 70 Black faculty out of 4,115 faculty, totaling 1.7 percent.
-- Only 1,026 Black undergraduates out of 29,468, totaling 3.4 percent.
-- Only 158 Black students are declared STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) majors out of 11,828, totaling 1.3 percent.
-- Only 347 Black graduate students out of 11,823, totaling 2.9 percent.
-- Only 42 professional Black students (lawyers, doctors and business) out of 2,006, totaling 2 percent.

Tekola addressed this brutal reality, forcefully pointing out:

And yet we still have some white people mad about affirmative action, as if the playing field is equal. As if the hurdles we were born into were the same. Our mere existence as Black people is, in itself, resistance! Being on campus is resistance. Staying out of jail, staying alive is resistance.

With only three months of classes left this school year, this movement has much work to do if it wants to win even some of the many demands presented during the walkout. However, the potential for solidarity and building a militant mass movement at the UW that could mobilize thousands of students and staff is greater now than it's been in years.

Students and workers around the country would do well to heed these final words from Tekola's speech:

Diversity does not just happen. Diversity takes effort. The stains from the 400 years of slavery, the First Nations who were kicked off their land, the colonization of Central and South America, Africa and India will not wash out over night. We are living with the scars of colonialism, exploitation and slavery. We are living with intergenerational trauma...

I-200 will not be repealed without our institution's desire for it to be repealed, and that desire will not be there unless we apply pressure to the institution as we are doing here now. So join us in making history during Black History Month and beyond.

Further Reading

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